In Conclusion…

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I did say I’d be gone for a while, though I wasn’t quite certain how long. I can’t say things have changed much, but I did want to get this post out before the end of the year, no matter what.

I’m feeling quite nostalgic today. It’s December 19th. 15 years ago today the Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres. That really was a turning point in my life, and it’s been a constant thread that’s woven in and out of it ever since. It may seem odd to have been so influenced by a movie, based on a fiction, but there it is. I’m sure someone can say the same of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

But today, of all days, I’m thinking of endings. Or, in terms of a PhD, conclusions. They’re hard things to write, conclusions. You’ve written all these words, managed to explain your complicated methodology, expounded at length about all the other authors you read who influenced you, created analysis chapters that your examiners will enjoy reading…and now you’ve come to it at last.

[Anyone want to count the Tolkien quotes in this post? I’ll give you a cookie if you spot them all.]

Conclusions are pesky things. You feel like you’ve said all the important stuff, and now you still have to write a few more thousand words. It kind of feels a bit like an insult. After all your months and months of hard work…you have to write everything you’ve already written, but in different words, and more condensed. Why? Didn’t your examiners get it the first time around? Why do you have to repeat yourself?

Conclusions are tiring things. They seem the hardest to write, after everything else. You aren’t introducing anything new. You aren’t explaining your intentions. You aren’t showing someone else’s work. So what are you doing?

You’re showing yours. That’s it. This is your chance to show your examiners and anyone else who reads your thesis one day, what you’ve done. Someone should be able to read only your conclusion chapter and get the point of your thesis.

And conclusions are especially frustrating things because, as Tolkien once said ‘all’s well that ends better’. And your conclusion must be that better ending. It must be uplifting and inspiring. It’s the last thing people will read and it’s your last chance for them to put your thesis down and say ‘that was good’. Even if the rest of your thesis has issues, or stumbles, you can make up for a lot in your conclusion (though not, I point out, everything).

You conclusion is a chance for you to summarise. There is a lot in your other chapters, and some of it can be lost in the reading. The conclusion is where you drive your point home. Where you say what you did, why it’s important, and where you can go from here. The conclusion is not an opportunity to waffle. It’s not where you should use more words than you need. The conclusion is where you need active voice. Be direct. Be clear. Be concise. Don’t let your reader get to your last page and wonder ‘I still can’t figure out why this is significant’.

But your conclusion is also where you need to admit that your amazing project…has issues. Every single project has issues. If you don’t admit them, it sounds like you didn’t acknowledge the limitations, or just chose to ignore them completely. Either looks bad. This isn’t where you expound on how bad your PhD is. It’s just where you acknowledge that there were limitations, you couldn’t do everything, if you had changed a variable you might have gotten other results, etc. Don’t go on for too long, but do explain this. Because if you don’t catch the limitations, your examiners will.

But, most importantly, your conclusion is where you say, in clear and no uncertain terms, what your contribution is. Why is this huge body of work important? Why have you spent 3/4/5 years of your life on it? Why should anyone be reading it?

A conclusion really doesn’t have to be long. A few thousand words is typical. You should have said everything that needed saying already, this is just where you summarise it and state the really important stuff again so that it stands out.

And then…then you have to figure out the conclusion to the conclusion. You can’t just…end. That last page, page and a half, is where you want to leave your readers wondering if you are some unknown genius that has discovered something that will change the future of the world. You probably haven’t, but you want to inspire your reader with the possibilities of your thesis. Of where it could go next and what the future of your field could hold for it.

So, have you thought of an ending?

 

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Analysis Chapters

This working for a living thing is really cutting into my time for other things. On the flip side, it is really nice to be making money again.

We have now gone through all the sections of the thesis but the last two. These are the analysis chapters and the conclusion. One could suggest these are the most important parts of your thesis and the ones your examiners will read with the greatest care. In the analysis section, you show the work you have done. You prove your thesis statement. This part might be long or short. It might contain a great deal of data and charts, or none at all. Your type of analysis will depend on your type of thesis. But all theses contain this section. This is not where you talk about what others have done. This is not where you talk about what you are going to do. This is not where you discuss your methods. This is where you show the research needed to prove your hypothesis is correct (or incorrect). This may be your own field research, statistics, or even research gathered from other sources. But it demonstrates what your thesis is and what problem it solves.

I’ve recently been doing research on business plans. I’ve never had much of a head for business and never written a business plan, but I thought I should have a go at one for my new company. The analysis part of your thesis is like the main section of your business plan: where you say what the business is and why its needed and what it will do for your customers. Ostensibly, this is the integral part of a business plan. Everything else supports this. Just as the rest of the thesis supports the analysis.

It will also be either the first thing you write, or one of the last. This will depend on how your research formulates itself. Sometimes starting with this part makes the rest of the thesis just flow onto the page. And sometimes, particularly if you are still not entirely certain how your data proves your hypothesis, starting with everything else may just lead you – step by step – to your final conclusions. In order to write your analysis chapter you have to understand your data. You have to know what it means and how it relates to your thesis and what it says. You have to know your conclusions.

This makes the analysis section of the thesis very scary. A lot of people procrastinate this part, because they don’t believe they have enough data to prove their case. This is unlikely, but sometimes the data can be overwhelming and you don’t know where to start.

I’ve been there. This is the part of the thesis I wrote absolutely last (other than the conclusion). Before I started it, I still wasn’t certain what format this section would take, how many chapters I needed, or – exactly – what I needed to say. I stewed for a long time, going over the data again and again, trying out different directions, before I realised that the hypothesis I had asked was wrong. Or rather, it wasn’t wrong, I had just asked the question the wrong way. Flipping the question suddenly lined up all of the data and away I wrote!

It might not be that easy for you. It might be even easier. The idea is to have a clear thesis statement, that you set out to prove through data gathering. The data either proves the thesis to be true, or not. Either outcome is valid, particularly in the sciences. But in Humanities, sometimes we get a little carried away with things, and we go off on tangents, and ultimately we realise we have a bunch of data that isn’t useful. You don’t have to use all your data, but having it all can confuse you. Sometimes, weeding out what data is actually useful will take you the longest, but once you have it you will be hard pressed not to shout ‘Eureka!’ and dance about the room.

And from there, it is a case of writing it all up. The analysis chapters don’t have to be formal or grandiose. They are about showing your data and explaining why it answers your thesis question and why that’s important. Be straightforward. Be clear. Don’t use 10,000 words when you only need 5,000. Here is where you need to learn to be concise. Flowery language or more words than necessary are not going to impress your examiners. They want to read this chapter (these chapters) and implicitly understand your entire thesis. If they can’t do that, you have not written these chapters correctly.

So take your time here. Be clear on what you are saying. Discuss it with others. Get others to read it. Focus on saying only what you need to say to prove your thesis. The flowery stuff can be saved for other chapters, like the lit review! [I’m joking, flowery language is inappropriate in any section of the thesis.] By the time your reader gets to this part of the thesis, they want it short and sweet.

 

The Bulk of the Thesis

Here’s my thing. I’ve mentored, I’ve supervised, I’ve taught, I’ve marked, and I’ve edited. I’m quite happy to see the teaching and marking part of my life go away. Neither are things I enjoy. But I hope to keep doing the mentoring or supervising in some way in the future. But the editing is the sort of thing I’ve done because someone asked me to do it, or needed me to do it. I never really thought of it as a career or even stable work. But here I am, again, doing editing. And you know what? I’m rather happy about that fact. I kind of like going through a document and making it better (though never perfect; there’s no such thing).

I bring this up because today I have started proofreading the bulk of a thesis. Or the ‘body’. The main part. The part that excludes the appendices, and references, and introductory sections, or even the conclusion. The main part of the thesis is where you show all the work you’ve done, discuss it in great detail, and demonstrate the entire point of your argument.

This might be anywhere from 20,000 words to 70,000, depending on what your subject and department are. Whatever the length of your thesis, however, the main part is going to form the majority of your words. And every one of them counts. You may have 70,000 words to play with, but superfluous ones (see what I did there) aren’t going to be appreciated by your examiners. You need to make sure that what you’re writing has a point. That it is clear and concise. If you can say it in 30,000 words, don’t take 50,000 just because you can. Most universities give maximums for theses, instead of minimums. That means that you can write any amount you need to for your thesis, but can’t go over a certain number. A lot of people find this very hard. It’s easier to write to a minimum, but much harder to know you only have a certain number of words to get your point across. So be concise (this paragraph is a bad example).

The bulk of your thesis could be 2 chapters or 7. The number is less important than what they constitute. You have to get a long list of things across in this part of your thesis. Your methodology (for most, unless you are amongst the fewer that put this in their introduction), your literature review(s), your data presentation, your analysis, and conclusions or recommendations (you will usually provide some manner of conclusions in your analysis chapter, then in more depth in your final conclusion chapter).

That is a lot to get into a thesis, and that’s leaving aside the introduction and conclusion chapters. But whatever number of chapters you have, and however many words you have for this part of the thesis, this part is often the hardest to write. Conclusions generally ‘write themselves’, because by the time you get to that chapter, you’ve been working on this for years, and analysed and thought about all your data for months. And the introduction is an intro to what you’ve already written in the rest of the thesis. An executive summary, basically. But the bulk of the thesis? That’s the important part. That’s the part your examiners really pay attention to. So that is the part you spend the most time on.

But don’t panic. Like any piece of writing, don’t ever set out to write ‘the bulk of the thesis’. Set out to write a 500 word section. Or a three-page sub-section. You will have your thesis outline already. You will know roughly what needs to get into each chapter, and then each section. Write them one at a time, in whatever order works best for you. And you will be very surprised that you end up at 50,000 words. Or 70,000. [Or a 100,000…oops.]

One small step at a time. You know your work. You know your research. You know what you need to say.

Methodologies

This post will not be about all the types of methodologies you can use in your PhD work. That really is for you to research and uncover. It is a main part of the PhD work, particularly if you are in the sciences. Methodology is also very particular to a project, and no two PhD theses will have the same exact methodology, unless you are purposely trying to recreate a project previously done.

What this blog post will be about is how to talk about your chosen methodology(ies). It is often a separate chapter in the thesis (definitely if you are STEM). It is also, usually, the second easiest part of your PhD to write, next to the literature review. The Lit Review is about reviewing other people’s research. The Methodology chapter is about talking about what methods someone else has already created that you have chosen to use for your thesis. Once again, it’s mainly other people’s research and how it can work for you.

Some people start with the methods chapter. That’s fine. Really, whatever works best for you, as we’ve <a href=”https://phdingfordummies.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/the-order-of-the-thing/”>previously</a&gt; covered.

Having said that, perhaps where we really need to begin is with a definition or two.

Method: a form of procedure for accomplishing something.

Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular study.

In other words, you use a method in your work, and those methods make up your methodology.

Some people only use one method for their research study, which is fine. That still makes up your methodology.

Some people use several.

I used four. Never* ever do that.

*No, you can, just realise it’s going to be a headache and a half.

I had two methods for collecting data, one for analysing it, and a method I used to structure my thesis. But I’ve never chosen to do things easily.

I also did not have a methodology chapter. This is more common in the humanities. I had a chapter where I talked about method, but as it was a method taken from a theory, the chapter was more about the theory and why I was using it, and what the method was. More Lit Review than Method in the end.

My Methodology therefore formed a part of my Intro chapter (nearly half of it, in fact). That’s okay too. Whatever works for your thesis is what you should do. Always discuss things with your advisor/supervisor, who can give you direction as to weighting and wordage.

Methodology in the thesis itself is all about what methods you employed for your work, why you chose those methods, and how those methods lead you to your conclusions/results. It’s pretty straight forward, and writing the chapter in that order is best. Usually, the last part of that chapter ‘how those methods lead to results’ is what leads you into the rest of your thesis where you talk about the data you collected and the results of that data. Think of the methodology chapter here as sort of a ‘this is what’s coming’. Your thesis is not about dramatic reveals. You give away your results in your introduction. Usually within the first couple of pages, but at least by the end of the chapter. By the time your reader gets to your methods chapter (generally, but not always, after your Lit Review), they already know what your thesis is about and what your conclusion is. At least, they have if you wrote it correctly!

Don’t stress about this chapter. It should not take that much time. In STEM, methodology is more important and will be a big focus for your examiners, because method is so particular to research. In Humanities, it’s going to be less important than your results are. So focus on your analysis and results chapters (and your intro and conclusion chapters, because those are often what get read first). That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend time on the methodology chapter, but don’t let it run away with you. It should not be overtly long (again, unless you are STEM and even then, most of your thesis will be graphs, charts and other results/findings) or overly complicated.

Straightforwardly tell the reader why you picked these methods and why they worked for your research. Use theory, talk about how other researchers have used these methods, etc., but don’t go off topic into your results or your analysis. That’s what later chapters are for.

 

Literature Review

I started, a while ago now, going through the chapters of the thesis. This is the first post in that series, all about how to structure the thesis and what chapters to include. This post, here, is the next step.

If you’ve done what everyone recommends, you have a word processor document open on your computer that says ‘Chapter 1: Introduction’ and nothing else. That’s great. Now tab down to a new page and type ‘Chapter 2: Literature Review’, because this is where you should actually start.

We’ve had the conversation already (again, a while ago) that the introduction should always be written last. The introduction is an intro to your entire thesis, and until you know what the thesis is, you can’t write an intro to it. But that’s all right, because the literature review is actually the easiest chapter to write, and therefore a good place to start.

You can start your literature review chapter(s) whenever you’d like. Some people write them as they go, others write them as they are writing up their theses. Otherwise write smaller versions to start and then combine/expand to create a full chapter.

Your Lit Review should not be your longest chapter, but it might end up being that way. About 10-15% of your thesis is a good game plan, unless you’re in the hard sciences, and then it may very well be less. Your advisor can give you a good idea of what an acceptable length in your department/field is.

There’s a lot to get into a Lit Review. You spent three years (or more) of researching, and you want to try to get all of it into one (or two) chapters.

You can’t. God, you can’t, so don’t try.

A Lit Review is an overview of the research in the field in which you are doing your study. It’s supposed to be general, without being too general (you’re not out to review the entire field of geography, for example, but to review the recent research into volcanology that is relevant to your study*).

You want the Lit Review to demonstrate to your examiners that you have read your way through and around the field, but since at least one of your examiners will likely be in your field, they also don’t want to read an 8000 word rehash of something they have researched themselves. Probably in more depth than you have.

It’s a fine line. Figure out what research is more useful for your study and put that in the Review chapter. The Lit Review is about you showing the recent research, critiquing it, and explaining why that research is important and/or has informed the research you are doing. Either you are building upon what others have done, or you are correcting what another has done, or someone’s work has inspired you to take an entirely new direction that no one else has ever thought of. Whatever it is, your work sits within a larger field, and this is what the Lit Review demonstrates.

Be clear. Don’t waffle. You don’t have the words to waffle. A few paragraphs about each publication/author/research study is enough. It can be good to start slightly wider in the research and then bring the chapter to a more specific focus, finally ending it on why this is all important to what you are doing.

Prove that the research is useful/important/interesting to what you are doing, or don’t bother putting it into the chapter. Your advisor/editor/examiner will just ask you to cut it out. It needs to help you make the case for why your research is important/innovative/unique, otherwise it doesn’t need to be there.

The Lit Review can be a pain to write. But it can also be that easy chapter that gets you started. Because it should not take you a long time. It should not fill your days and nights for months on end. This is a chapter you should really be able to write in a couple of weeks. And then move on. It’s important to your thesis, but it is not your most important chapter. Write it, put it aside, move on. You can come back to it in a few months and add to it (latest research!) or delete words if you find it’s too long.

Don’t stress about this chapter. It’s not the one that examiners are going to call you out on (well, probably not), and it’s not the central focus. Your Lit Review is other people’s work, and you are only putting it in there to show where your work sits within and next to theirs. To prove that your work works within your field.

*This was not my best example ever.

 

This is Why I Write

In the last two years I have written two complete novels. And edited them. If they ever get published, I’ll let you know, but for now I have not written them in order to publish them. I have written them because I had to.

There are an infinite number of recommendations on the Internet of what makes a writer a writer. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that if you write, you’re a writer. But many people will say that you are a writer if you are compelled to write. If you cannot stop yourself, or know a moment’s peace, unless you put words to paper. Whatever the definition of a writer is, I am compelled. My mind is not quiet once it’s got ahold of an idea. It must make that idea reality. It must create a world on paper. It must form a character and give them words. So I am compelled.

In the old days (i.e. a decade ago) that compulsion could usually be quieted by writing a short fan fiction. These days, that compulsion can’t be quieted until an entire novel is on my hard drive. Perhaps that’s a comment on a developing art form or simply that, after a PhD, my mind needs more than a thousand words to sort itself out.

Writing is for me equal parts therapy and equal parts pleasure. Therapy is often painful, and writing is no less than that. It makes me realise things about myself I didn’t already know. And it helps me work through issues I’m having, by giving characters those same problems and letting them come up with solutions. Sometimes, those solutions work, and sometimes they don’t. But every single word I write, helps me in some way.

Writing a novel helped me through the last two months of my PhD. I’m not certain I would have mentally survived those two months if not for the novel, and playing in a world so very different from my thesis (which dealt with digital technologies, and the novel had no technology in it). It was a place for my mind to go that wasn’t filled with stress or worry or editing nightmares. It was a place of peace and calm, creating a new world where things worked the way I wanted them to work. Where I was in charge and could decide what happened. I felt very out of control in those last months of my thesis, and the novel helped me regain some of that lost control. Or at least to feel like I had.

Writing has always been my escape, which is possibly why I can’t do it for a living, because then I’d be ‘escaping’ all the time. But it is something I need. For me, it’s a necessity of life, just like any on Maslow’s hierarchy. I need it like I need air, just not quite as often. A good thing too, or I’d never get anything else done.

The Order of the Thing

Also titled: Why people write thesis chapters in certain orders – and why I didn’t.

I’ve talked about thesis chapters before. About how to create an outline for your chapters, and roughly what sort of chapters are needed for a thesis. But I haven’t actually broken that down much further, so here is the first post wherein I talk about actually formulating and writing said chapters in more depth.

Everyone, (including my supervisor) said ‘don’t write the introduction first!’

I politely told everyone to please go away.

I am a logically ordered person. Beginning, middle, end. I read this way. I write this way. I think this way. Just because everyone tells you to write your thesis in a certain way, does not mean that way will actually work for you. So consider any advice (including this) that you get. If you are not used to writing a certain way, or you are unsure of how to, your PhD thesis is probably not a good time to experiment.

Having said that, I know a lot of people who did what they were told. That’s fine. If you want to try that, go ahead.

But if you absolutely cannot (ie. if you’ve been staring at a flashing cursor for a month or more), then go about writing how you always have. If it’s worked before, it will work again.

So I started with chapter 1. Part 1.0. And then I wrote 1.1. And then 1.2. And then all the way to 1.9. And then I wrote chapter 2. Etc.

All the way to the conclusion. Which you should write last anyways (thankfully).

Was it hard to write Chapter 1 first? Yes, of course it was. I had no idea what the rest of my thesis would be, beyond a general outline. I knew roughly what my literature review and theory chapters would have, but I was still doing my data analysis when I started chapter 1, so I had no real idea what my later chapters (or conclusions) would be. But you don’t need that to write chapter 1. Whatever you write will get rewritten and edited. My final chapter 1 was not so different from the first draft, but it included my conclusions and a final outline of the thesis.

In the introduction, you can write about the theories you are using (in brief or in detail), your methodology (as I did – I didn’t have a methodology chapter), an outline of what the rest of the thesis will be, your conclusions, brief literature reviews – i.e. the most integral literature to your thesis, and – most importantly – your aims and objectives. Some theses will not include all of these in chapter 1, but mine did, so it’s certainly possible to.

I started by figuring out what had to go into chapter 1 (see above list). Then in what order those worked best. Then I literally created a Word doc. that had subheadings for each section. Then I started at the beginning with introducing my thesis, the RQ and sub questions, the aims and objects. Then I moved on to literature, then theory, then methodology, then the thesis outline. When I started each section, I broke it down further. This was most important for methodology, as it was the longest section. It had 7 subsections (each type of research method I used for qualitative collection, each case study museum, the method for data analysis – in brief, I talked about this in depth later). Once you get to that many subsections, you’re talking a few hundred to a thousand words for each. And that’s much less scary!

I continued how I started. Each chapter was the same way. Headings, followed by breaking them down to subheadings when I reached each new section. I wrote in 500-word sections, most of the time, and it pretty much worked out.

But it was logical. It was sequential. It was the only way. It may not be your way, and if so, then you’re doing what everyone advices you should do. But if this is your way, know that it’s okay. That it does work. Write how you know (and then write what you know) and you’ll have a thesis in no time.

Amendments

Oh, the envy. That green clawing feeling that takes over your heart when you hear about someone who breezed through with no thesis amendments. You can’t help yourself. You try not to compare yourself to others, but that jealousy when others do so well is something we all struggle with.

Everyone wants to get through their viva with no amendments. Few people manage it. Remember that. I have met people who treated amendments like it was part of their PhD, a necessary and inevitable part. I met people who treated amendments like failing an exam and having to retake it.

I felt like the latter. Honestly, I knew I’d get amendments. I never even expected otherwise. What I got were things that boggled my mind and made me want to curl up into a ball and cry because I felt like such a fraud. I felt like I’d written the worst thesis ever, and my examiners were being super kind to even pass me. I felt like I’d failed.

Nearly everyone goes into their viva worrying they have failed. Most people feel the same going into any exam. But to come out of your viva actually feeling like you did fail is an entire other experience. I’d only had it once in undergrad when I knew I had bombed an exam. I was not prepared for feeling like it after my viva. I was not prepared for the feelings of failure and utter misery that followed me for weeks afterwards.

But you probably will get amendments. And you might even get a lot of them. In some departments this is more common than others. In some departments it’s more a 50/50 chance. Whichever department you belong to, know that you might get lots and lots of amendments. And you will probably feel like you failed. Or at least frustrated that you could have done better. It’s normal. But don’t let it destroy you.

It nearly destroyed me. I was so done with my PhD when I submitted, and to then be told, not long afterwards, that I needed to do another six months of intensive work felt like being on the verge of being released from prison, and being told you have suddenly been given six months in solitary confinement (well maybe it’s not, but this is how I envisioned it – it’s very much what it felt like in my head). It was only thanks to a few very good and supportive friends who – nearly daily – told me I was not a failure, that what I was going through was normal, and that it would all – eventually – be okay that got me through. I’m forever thankful to them, and passing on that good will is one of the reasons I started this blog.

So you’ve got amendments. If they are simple amendments, get on them as quickly as you can, get your thesis finished and graduate! Don’t let anything stand in your way. Simple amendments shouldn’t take you very long, and shouldn’t cause you much stress.

If they aren’t simple, well, welcome to the club. I completely sympathise. The first time I read through my required amendments (after a month of not even being able to look at the document) I had a panic attack and then I cried for three days. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to do them. It seemed ten times harder than anything I had done in my PhD.

It’s not. It’s no harder. You might feel like it is, but it isn’t. You’ve researched and written an entire PhD. You can amend it.

I found it easiest to start with the simple amendments. The ones that I knew I could do and knew wouldn’t take all that much time. That got me through half the document in a few weeks and made me feel better about things. From there, I just tackled each of the other amendments one at a time. I didn’t try to think ahead to the next one, or how hard it would be. I didn’t allow myself (well, not often) to stress about how I was going to do that one. I concentrated on one at a time. If I hit a roadblock, I emailed my supervisor or talked to my post-viva Persons. And, eventually, I got through them all. That took five months (including the month of not even being able to look at the damn document). They had given me six months though, and even with the very long list I had, and working part-time at a job, I managed it in four. Never stress about the amendments deadline. You will have enough time, as long as you don’t spend five months freaking out before you start work [having said that, I know someone who spent three months freaking out and still got everything done in five months.]

Now, once you’ve finished your amendments, you have to edit and proof read them. I had my entire thesis proofed again, because I was worried about having any mistakes whatsoever in the final document. You may only want to proof the stuff you’ve changed, that’s your choice.

And then, then you submit it again. Your university will have specific requirements for how you go about this, and who it needs to be submitted to. At mine, we submitted to the head examiner who made the final call so it didn’t need to be fully examined again, or vivaed again. I submitted to the head examiner on a Monday, and I heard back on Thursday. I fully expected it to take about two weeks, so don’t worry if you don’t hear back right away. It does take time to read a thesis!

But when you do hear back, it will very likely be good news. I don’t actually know anyone (personally) who failed their amendments (unless they didn’t do them). In fact, I know a few people who did not do some of their amendments and still passed. But they did justify why they didn’t do them. For myself, there were two amendments I did not do to the extent asked for, but they were both minor amendments, and I wrote a note to the examiner to explain why I felt they were not necessary to the thesis (but would be for any further research). This is generally okay, but you must be able to back yourself up. Just ‘I didn’t want to do it’ is never going to be an acceptable reason.

Once you hear back, you might very well feel like they’ve made a mistake. I spent three months after hearing back wondering if I’d dreamed it, even after the official letter arrived from my university to say ‘yes, yes, we’ve given you a PhD, go away now’. If fact, I still had a little tiny part of me that didn’t believe it until after I’d graduated. It was only then I felt I could send my thesis off to all the people who had helped with my research and tell them ‘I’m done’.

Amendments, particularly involved ones, can feel like your world is ending, just after you thought it had finally gotten around to starting again. But it’s not the end of the world, no matter how many you get. Because, whatever amendments you get, you did not get ‘this is not an acceptable PhD and we will not be awarding you your degree’. Amendments mean you deserve a PhD, you just need a bit of help to make your thesis ready.

Remember that, when you’re in month three of your corrections and feeling like you’re going to go crazy if you have to do another day of it. You will get through it and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Feedback and Evaluation

The biggest difference between a PhD programme and, say, an MA, is the lack of constant feedback and the daily obligation to be accountable to your whereabouts and your work. You might go weeks (or months as a part-time student) without talking to another PhD student or your supervisor. It means the onus is on you to do the work. This can be difficult, but what is especially difficult is a lack of regular feedback. There’s no papers or exams with a mark telling you you need to work harder. There is only you.

If you are lucky, your supervisor will expect some sort of regular contact and an update on how your work is going. If you aren’t lucky, you may have to go find this yourself.

But it’s not just your supervisor you can go to. Other PhD students in your department are a fantastic resource. It can be difficult to approach someone you don’t know (particularly if you’re a part-time person), but it shouldn’t be hard to find contacts for other students, at least those you share a supervisor with. If you can find even one person that is your Person, this can make a big difference to getting you through your PhD. If you can’t find one in your own department, look further afield. I found one on Twitter!

When you have someone, or more than one, make use of them as a resource, but also offer to act in the same capacity for them. This may be as simple as setting a deadline and asking the other person to hold you accountable to it. It may be as complex and involved as asking for feedback on a paper or on research you’ve done. If your Person doesn’t have time for such things, find a new person (or another person). It’s good to have more than one, and often it’s very useful to have different people for different sorts of help.

But once you have tracked down someone who can be a good resource for you, exploit them (I mean this in the nicest way possible – and remember they will likely do the same to you). Ask them to read the paper you are writing. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for an hour while you work through a difficult theory or thought you are trying to get straight in your head. Ask them to read over a paragraph you are struggling with. Just ask them. It’s so hard to ask for things when you are PhD student, because you forever feel guilty for needing help and for bothering others. Get over that right now. You can’t finish a PhD completely on your own. You need help and you need support and that means bothering other people. The system works because those other people bother you (or other people). It’s the circle of PhD life.

If you aren’t sure, start by asking for help that won’t take up too much time. Struggling with the wording of a sentence? Can’t quite put into words the theory you’re using? Not sure how something will sound to someone outside your field? You can always build up the relationship to full on feedback.

But other students can be the best source for this, because they want it themselves, and because they will inevitably be coming at your field of study from an outside perspective. It’s why it’s best to get someone who is not your supervisor to read your finished thesis before you submit, because they will find things that you and your supervisor never noticed. Persons can be good for this sort of thing, if they have the time, but often non-PhD student Persons are best for reading whole theses.

But you need to ask for feedback. Everything you’ve done thus far in life has had some sort of feedback, even if that was just a verbal ‘good job’ at the last place you worked. As human beings, we crave this, even if it’s a critique, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and challenges us to do better. You need someone to give you feedback and evaluation of how you write, what you are writing, your research question, your analysis, etc. If your supervisor cannot always be available to do this, you need someone else to help. And even if your supervisor is, it’s best to have a second opinion. Other people will not catch the same mistakes, but they will catch new ones.

So find a Person or Persons. Make friends with them. Offer to support them. Ask for help. Ask them to be honest with you. You don’t want someone who just says ‘great job, sounds fantastic!’ because it probably doesn’t sound fantastic. You want someone who will go ‘well, actually, I think you need to rewrite this, I don’t understand it’. The more constructive criticism your Person can give you, the better.

Near the end of your studies, when you are reaching those final words before editing your thesis as a whole, find a few Persons you haven’t approached before. Ask them to edit, ask them to proof, ask them to comment. Ask people who know absolutely nothing about your topic. Ask people who are not academics, and ones who are. The more feedback you can get and opinions you can hear on what your thesis is like, the better you can make it before submission, and the more prepared you’ll be for your viva too.

Thesis Chapters

The be-all and end-all of how to create a thesis chapter plan (no matter what department you’re part of).

Well, here’s a Big One. An Important One. The one that everyone I know worried about (or is worrying about) and the one that caused me no end of grief. Wish I had had something like this to look at, all in one place.

Google has just become your best friend. There are thousands and thousands of pages that can give you outlines of theses. Read as many of them as you can, but don’t waste all your time this way. Your university might have a standard format for your department, so ask around amongst students and your supervisor. Your discipline might have a specific number of chapters and a general format to use for a thesis. Ask as many people as you can who are doing similar work to you and take the average, or their best recommendations.

If it’s very much a ‘whatever you feel is right’, then you have a problem. It’s so much easier to start with a general idea than to start with nothing.

The basic format of a thesis is, usually, an intro chapter, methodology chapter, lit review, data chapters, analysis, conclusion. That’s not to say all theses look like this. Some method chapters end up in the intro chapter. Sometimes you’ll have more than one lit chapter. Sometimes analysis is in the data chapters. It’s really rather flexible.

Most theses are 5-6 chapters, though, and generally range from 50,000-80,000 words. Humanities subjects are normally on the high end, while science is normally lower (because of all those graphs). Your university department WILL have a maximum word count (or page count) and you MUST take that into account.

It’s generally advisable that, when you first start writing-up, to sit down and work out your chapters – roughly – and assign a general word count to them. You might not keep to those word counts, but it gives you something to aim for.

[If you can keep to those word counts, more the better though. It makes editing easier.]

Start easy. Chapter 1: Introduction. Chapter 2: Methodology (or not, if you’re putting that somewhere else). Chapter 3: Lit Review, and so on. Guestimate. It doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Once you have that chapter list, start to break those chapters down. Introduction normally starts with an intro, then the research question, aims and objectives, etc. There are basic formats on Google and most of them will work for you, with a bit of tweaking. The Intro isn’t rocket science.

[Unless you’re writing about rocket science.]

Your other chapters will be less specific. Google will probably stop being helpful around about the time you get to your data chapters, because each thesis is so individual.

I originally planned out 7 chapters, but ended up with 8, on account of needing to add another data chapter because I had two main data sets in answer to my question, and then some other data that didn’t fit in those chapters, but was still actually really important. So it ended up being data chapter 1, and sort of took the place of the methodology chapter too, but also linked my last lit review with my first proper data chapter a lot better than they had been. It worked out, basically.

My chapters ended up being thus:

Chapter 1: Introduction – intro, research question, research aims & objectives, context, methodology, outline

Chapter 2: Lit Review 1 – this was the very traditional lit review chapter for the general field in which I was writing

Chapter 3: Lit Review 2 – this was the first of two theories I used for my thesis – this theory was used to analyse the data after collection

Chapter 4: Lit Review 3 – this second theory was used to actually collect the data, so it was a bit methodology like as well, but I flagged that up specifically in Chapter 5 in it’s own part – this was also the unique part of my thesis, so it was the Key Chapter

Chapter 5: Data chapter 1 – introduction of case studies, linking Chapter 4 and Chapter 6, analysis methodology, conclusion and introduction of main data chapters

Chapter 6: Data chapter 2 – intro, included analysis, conclusion

Chapter 7: Data chapter 3 – intro, included analysis, reviewed research question at the end, conclusion

Chapter 8: Conclusion – summary of findings, limitations of research, future research, unexpected conclusions, conclusion (this was a page long).

Remember, every thesis is different, so this is just a sample. When I first started writing-up, I had a very general thesis outline, but as I got further along that got more and more detailed. That’s the way it should be. You don’t have to know everything you’re going to write and where it will go when you start – you just have to start.